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‘The legacy of Wangari Maathai continues’

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‘The legacy of Wangari Maathai continues’

— says daughter Wanjira Mathai on Wangari Maathai Day and Africa Environment Day.
Raphael Obonyo
From Africa Renewal: 
3 March 2022
An image of Wangari Maathai, Nobel Laureate and newly appointed UN Messenger of Peace.
UN Photo/Mark Garten
Wangari Maathai, Nobel Laureate and newly appointed UN Messenger of Peace (front row fourth from right) at the opening of the high-level segment of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
If you can't read now, just listen to the audio version: 

3rd March, the African Union-established Africa Environment Day, also marks Wangari Maathai Day that celebrates the work of Kenyan environmentalist Professor Wangari Maathai. In 2004, Prof. Maathai became the first African woman to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. 2021 marks 10 years since Prof. Maathai’s passing. Her daughter, Ms. Wanjira Mathai spoke to Raphael Obonyo for Africa Renewal about continuing her mother’s legacy: Here are excerpts:

An image of Ms. Wanjira Mathai
Ms. Wanjira Mathai, Vice President And Regional Director For Africa

Wanjira Mathai: Thank you for honouring this day, Wangari Maathai Day, Africa Environment Day and World Wildlife Day. It a triple celebration day!

Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?

I am a mother of two girls, and I consider myself one of the holders of my mother - the late environmentalist Prof. Wangari Maathai’s legacy. I was honoured to have worked with her for 12 years and it was an eye-opening, inspiring, and learning moment for me. My background is in public health and business, and one time I was home for a break when my mother said, “Come and work with me, help me with this”. So, in the process of working with her, I got pulled into her life and passion at her organization – the Green Belt Movement. I spent those years getting to understand what drove her. She was a good example of someone who was literally working at the exclamation point of her passion.

How so?

My mother was passionate about the environment and the people, especially the most vulnerable, women and youth. She was always looking at how she could use nature to generate income. Sadly, she passed on in September 2011. We set up the Wangari Maathai Foundation to continue her legacy. I am the Chairperson of the Foundation, and our work is focused on youth leadership, inspiring them to unpack the message of Wangari Maathai.

Full video interview of Ms. Wanjira Mathai with Raphael Obonyo for Africa Renewal talking about continuing her mother’s legacy

What was her message to young people?

Persistence, patience and commitment. This is what remains at the heart of the Wangari Maathai Foundation’s work. We are also proud of the Wangari Maathai Institute that was established at the University of Nairobi [in Kenya] that is now training PhD and Masters students on how to take what they have learnt in the classroom directly to communities, bridging the knowledge and practice gap.

Today, 3rd March, the world is commemorating Wangari Maathai Day and Africa Environment Day. What does this mean to you?

It means a lot. The African Union designated 3rd March, which was already the Africa Environment Day, as Wangari Maathai Day, in recognition of the contribution she made, the mark that she left on Africa’s environment and in many ways Africa’s wildlife. The habitats my mother fought so hard to protect are very important for biodiversity, and so this day is a special recognition. It is an honour of great proportion from the African Union.

Your mother, the late Prof. Maathai, would have turned 81 this April (2021). Can you share any words of wisdom that she passed on to you that still ring true today?

You know, there are so many words of wisdom I got from her.  Every time I am asked this question, a different one comes to mind. She always talked about patience, commitment and persistence. The hummingbird story was in many ways the signature of her core message. The story starts with a huge fire consuming a forest. All the animals watch in disbelief, feeling overwhelmed and powerless, except this little hummingbird that kept shuttling back-and-forth to the river to fetch water, using its tiny beak, to put out the fire.

The lesson is that you shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the enormity of a situation - just do the best you can to help. If everybody contributes in their own small way, like the hummingbird, change will happen.

I learnt that I shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the enormity of challenges we are facing - climate change or poverty - but that I should ask myself what I am doing to address it. That it is enough contribution - if am doing my best, with what I have, from where I am. That was a really important piece of advice.

Prof. Maathai was a fighter for justice, and she suffered a great deal as a result. How do you think that has shaped your own outlook on life?   

Well, it was difficult. Things are different now - you and I have it completely different than she did.  The struggles then were a lot more challenging. I always feel like we don’t have much of an excuse. A lot has been given to me, so a lot is expected.

My mother’s struggles were difficult, but she survived them. I feel that was a blessing in many ways. She exhibited a lot of courage, and in many ways, we stand on her shoulders. So, I feel inspired by her struggle, by her journey. If she came back today and found us still where she left us, that would be very disappointing. Our challenge now is to meet the challenges of our time with the same courage, or even more. 

Kenyan environmentalist Professor Wangari Maathai resting in Uhuru Park, Nairobi 1991.

Tell us more about the Green Belt Movement, the organization your mother started in the 1970s that mobilized local communities to plant millions of trees?

I am always, in many ways, deeply inspired by the fact that 44 years ago, in 1977, my mother and others came up with this genius idea of starting the Green Belt Movement to mobilize local communities to restore their landscapes. They were ahead of their time. Today, it is one of the most important initiatives and strategies for addressing the biggest challenge of our time - climate change.

As an organization the Green Belt Movement has its struggles as many organisations do, but I hope that its better days are ahead because its work is crucial in addressing, not just climate change, but also generating jobs for young people, restoring landscapes, reforesting, creating more opportunities in ecotourism, as well as for water, food, medicines and other products that we get from forests.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns here in Nairobi, we had the Karura Forest, Uhuru Park, City Park, and other places where people could go. We know how important nature is for our mental health. Karura Forest was one of the most visited places during the pandemic, it was a wonderful outlet, but also visionary, because 30 years ago my mother fought hard to preserve it.

The Wangari Maathai Foundation seeks to advance her legacy. What are some of the projects the Foundation is carrying out?

Africa is the continent with the youngest population on the planet. At the Foundation, we want the young generation to step into the future with a set of values and character. We are about character building and inspiring the youth. We start with children in schools, developing programmes to build emotional intelligence and have a deep sense of integrity.

It is just about a year since your appointment as Vice-President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute (WRI). What are some of your key achievements so far? What are your plans?

WRI is a research organization, so a lot of what we do is evidence-building and using that to influence how cities are evolving, how countries are prioritizing nature, and how they are protecting the most vulnerable.

Our strategy focuses on inclusive transformation for Africa’s people and landscapes. We offer a lot of data that demonstrates that it makes sense to invest in a green future. For the past year we have been in lockdown, but we were able to refresh our strategy, to focus on fewer things, fewer places but go deeper, and do things that are really transformative. We must touch on poverty and begin to influence livelihoods, especially for rural communities and the most vulnerable. If you look at the data, about 80 per cent of the food eaten in many countries is produced by small-scale farmers and majority of them - about 70 per cent - are women.

Ms. Wanjira Mathai and her daughters.

What kind of initiatives is WRI undertaking?

We are hitting the ground running on key initiatives. I am particularly proud of our landscape watch work, which is about restoration. It’s how we equip implementers on the ground with the tools, skills and platforms that WRI has, and also work with governments to help plan, monitor and implement restoration.

The other is working with Planning departments and ministries of Finance to make the case for a low carbon growth pathway – making decisions today about energy choices, manufacturing and infrastructure development, etc. A new climate economy needs a new way of thinking. We can make our ambitious targets and plans for 2050, but you have to set that trajectory right now, so that we can get to our low carbon future.

You are a leading voice in environmental, women’s and social justice movements. Tell us about the three achievements you’re most proud of? 

I would like to believe that I have played a role in highlighting the crucial role that youth can play in the transformation of Africa. I would also like to believe that I have played a role in highlighting the central importance of landscape restoration in the continent’s transformation and how we address the climate crisis. I have continued to be a climate action champion, especially climate adaptation.   

I also consider myself a great advocate for Africa and certainly for inclusive transformation. If we are not inclusive in how we develop our infrastructure, or how we develop our country [and continent] then we’ll create a bigger problem. We have to bridge that gap.

January 2021 marked the start of the Paris Climate Change Agreement implementation and yet current climate action and financing are falling woefully short. What gives you hope that we can meet the challenge of climate change?

Well, we have to be hopeful. I’m an optimist and I operate from a place of hope. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated just how connected we are, that we are not going to be safe if only a few are safe, and also the central role that multilateralism plays.

So, I have hope that the commitments made in Paris will be met, that we’ll put even more emphasis on climate adaptation. We have to take climate change seriously, and plan for the worst-case scenarios and for disaster risk-preparedness.

It is frightening that Africa will be most disproportionately affected by climate change, even though we have done the least to cause it. We have to really begin to prepare for that, and that means a significant increase in climate financing.

We have to keep putting a lot of pressure on our development partners and certainly on the developed countries, the richer countries, to put a price on carbon and to begin to limit and to decarbonize their economies. They have to be very ambitious with their national determined contributions because they are the ones who are polluting and spewing most of the carbon that is causing the problem.

January 2021 also marked the start of trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). How do we balance the industrialization needed to lift millions of people out of poverty with protecting our environment?

The good news is that we can do both. Climate economy analysis across different countries shows that it is not a tradeoff - it is a false choice between industrialization and protecting the environment.  In fact, we can enhance economic development and climate resilience if we put in place certain priorities now. The choices we make now are important signals for investments, so that we can begin to build that resilient future.

The AfCFTA opens really important, exciting opportunities for intra-African trade. At the moment intra-African trade is only at about 17 per cent, while in regions like Europe it is about (69 per cent), Asia (59 per cent), and North America (31 per cent) [according to Brookings Institution, 2017]. There is a lot of room for growth for us to trade, however, there has to be the political will to implement [the AfCFTA]. I hope that we will see the elimination of non-tariff barriers that have kept prices so high for commodities. I heard recently that it is cheaper for South Africa to import rice from Vietnam than from Senegal where the rice is as good but is more expensive - that is unacceptable. For Africa to transform itself, we need to up the trade.

You have been working with a lot of talented young environmentalists and climate champions. What is your message to young people?

First, young people are creative and innovative. There are reports that Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa last year hugely benefited from investments for new innovative ideas, especially in the digital space. The digital transformation will make a huge difference for Africa - young people have the skills, knowledge, interest, creativity and energy to do it. I hope we can create the sort of platforms that allow them to find full expression for their creativity. My message to them is: just find a passion and pursue it.

Finally, what is your main message as the world remembers Prof. Wangari Maathai?  

On this Wangari Maathai Day, let us keep the faith. She was always so hopeful about the future of this continent.

My mother and I travelled a lot together and she always reminded me how lucky we are to have the most beautiful country, the most beautiful continent, and the most diverse continent. It is such an important thing to remember, we are blessed with the best weather in the world, the best brains, and yet we have not been able to crack through what is holding us back.

Let us keep the faith and push on.  Let’s push for better governance and for better engagement amongst ourselves. Get involved in spaces that you feel inspire you, because the future of this continent is great. We have to make it work so that we can enjoy it and thrive for generations to come. 

* The article was first published on 3 March 2021.

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